4 Ways Autocrats Have Used Interpol to Harass Faraway Enemies

Interpol is the world’s largest police organization. It serves as a powerful bulletin board that governments and law enforcement agencies use to team up to pursue fugitives across the globe. At its best, it helps track down killers and terrorists.

But it is also a novel weapon for strongmen and autocrats in the hunt for political enemies, giving them the power to reach across borders and grab their targets — even in democracies.

Here are some of the ways countries can exploit Interpol:

Interpol’s red notice, the closest thing to an international arrest warrant, has long been dogged by controversy. An award-winning Venezuelan journalist was detained in Peru. An Egyptian asylum seeker was stopped in Australia. And William F. Browder, a London-based human rights campaigner, has been repeatedly targeted for arrest by Russia.

In response, Interpol has toughened oversight, making it harder than ever to misuse red notices. But as it focused on policing politically motivated abuse, other vulnerabilities have remained.

Abril Meixueiro discovered a red notice had been issued against her for child abduction after she returned home to Colorado from Mexico with her young daughter. She had just been granted full custody in a divorce from a man she described as violent and controlling.

The red notice, requested by the police in Mexico, allowed the man to pursue Ms. Meixueiro across borders. Interpol did not know about a local police report concluding that she was “experiencing serious violence,” or about a restraining order issued by a judge against her former husband (who denies wrongdoing). It knew only that Mexico wanted her extradited on child-abduction charges.

Interpol says it is investigating Ms. Meixueiro’s “concerning” case, and it has redacted her data from its systems. For now, she does not fly to avoid the risk of being flagged by the agency’s databases and sent back to Mexico. When she needs to be at her office, which is in Miami, she drives for three days.

Blue notices — alerts seeking information about someone — have roughly doubled in number over the past decade. While Interpol now reviews every red notice before it is issued, it does not scrutinize blue notices until they have circulated. Those after-the-fact checks have identified 700 alerts since 2018 that violated Interpol’s rules.

Lawyers say they are seeing more cases in which blue notices are being used by countries seeking to circumvent the stricter red-notice checks.

Russia, for example, was able to issue a blue notice for a man seeking asylum in Florida. It claimed he was wanted for the assault and homicide of a man who Russian court records showed was still alive.

One of the most challenging systems for Interpol to police is its stolen and lost passport database. Belarus and Turkey, for example, have turned Interpol’s database into a weapon to harass dissidents or strand them abroad. Abuse of this tool got so bad that Interpol temporarily blocked Turkey from using it, and Belarus is now subject to special monitoring.

Such cases are harder to fix than notices: Interpol doesn’t have the power to reissue a passport if it has already been seized.

Other communications, like direct messages — known as diffusions — between countries over Interpol systems often get no review at all, but they can lead to an arrest.

Red diffusions, which request a specific country’s help in making an arrest, are systematically checked before they’re circulated. But only an unspecified percentage of other diffusions are ever reviewed.